Denis Shapovalov got Canada back to evens on Friday when he defeated Viktor Galovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in the second match of Canada’s Davis Cup opening round in Croatia. It followed Borna Coric’s 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 win over Vasek Pospisil.
While Shapovalov was near the height of his precocious powers, Pospisil’s fitness was gradually diminished as the match progressed – a victim of knee and back issues that made for a dramatic shift after the 45-minute opening set.
Pospisil’s disappointment and frustration contrasted Shapovalov’s comprehensive mastery of an inferior opponent.
The Canadian, only 18, is ranked no. 48 to Galovic’s no. 181. He showed his class by outplaying the 27-year-old Croat exactly the way a higher rated player should. Not that accustomed to red clay and playing away from home in a partisan, though not hostile, environment, Shapovalov was close to flawless in his execution during the hour and 50-minute match.
He won 83 percent of first serve points and 57 percent of second serve points and even nearly matched the rugged Galovic’s serving power – hitting a fastest first serve of 218 km/hr compared to 220 km/hr for the 6-foot-4 Croat.
“It’s tough to be angry with myself about anything today,” Shapovalov summed up during his post-match media conference. “I fought off all the break points (eight) he had against me. I was playing really well in the big moments.”
He converted four of his 12 break points and looked comfortable on the red clay at the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena in Osijek – moving well in space and sliding to near max extension on the slippery surface. “I feel like clay kind of suits my game,” he said. “Being a lefty using a lot of kick serves – I’m able to have good whip on my shots so I can really open up the court. Once I really learned the footing of the clay I became really comfortable with it and, to be honest, I’m enjoying it.”
He managed a head cold that has been nagging at him for a couple of days just as well as he handled Galovic on Friday. During his post-match congratulatory run along the row of his courtside Davis Cup teammates and staff, he had to stop and have a good hack as can be seen in the photo above.
“I wasn’t feeling too good yesterday so I wasn’t sure how I would be today,” he said. “I’m really happy was able to play full out today. It wasn’t an issue for me.”
He will want to be in top shape for what is now guaranteed to be a fourth match either against Coric, the no. 1 Croat after Marin Cilic ruled himself out of the opening singles, or Cilic himself if he happens to be parachuted into the fourth slot for Sunday.
One thing for sure is that Shapovalov will have a day off to prepare after Canadian captain Frank Dancevic said his young charge will get a rest while Pospisil and Daniel Nestor play doubles against Ivan Dodig and Franko Skugor on Saturday – although it’s widely anticipated Cilic will be inserted and reunited with Dodig with whom he has had great Davis Cup success.
Whether Pospisil is in the doubles could depend on how well he bounces back from a wearing two-hour and 20-minute encounter with no. 47-ranked Coric in Friday’s first match. All went well in the opening set as he broke the 20-year-old Croat’s serve at 4-3 on a double fault and then served it out to love in the following game.
But Coric struck back immediately, breaking serve in the second game of the second set. The match then made a U-turn in favour of the Croat and away from Pospisil. It was never the same again. Later, Coric offered insight about the shift. “I saw at the beginning of the third set and the end of the second set that he was struggling physically,” Coric said about Pospisil. “So I think that’s the main key. From the beginning of the third set until the end of the match he didn’t serve so well. The momentum of the match it just changes – you don’t know why but it basically happens all the time.”
This time part of it was much more penetrating ball-striking by Coric with the other part being a drop in Pospisil’s overall match metabolism.
He had come to Osijek straight from a Challenger title at the hard court event in Rennes, France and his adjustment to the red clay at the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena was limited by a flu bug he suffered through on Monday night and Tuesday morning. “I was really unsure what to expect because I didn’t play a point (in practice) coming into this match,” Pospisil said. “I didn’t do any movement on the surface and I didn’t know how I would hold up physically.
“I started really well and optimistic, playing really aggressive. But I started to get a little bit tired and it was a combination of that and Borna playing more aggressive. Credit to him he started playing really well but my energy level dropped – my serve and the overall weight of my strokes and the momentum of the match really turned there. My focus wasn’t the way it should be. I felt I was the hitting the ball well enough to win this match but my body wasn’t co-operating the way I wanted it to.”
“I’ve had knee pain for a week now. The knee was bugging me during the match but not enough to really affect anything. I started to get a bit of a stiff back midway through the match which was more of an issue than the knee. I guess it just came with the movement on the clay – my body’s not used to it. And to be thrown into a high intensity match like that you’re probably going to have some issues. I wasn’t at 100 percent, that’s obvious, and I think that’s why it’s a tough one to swallow. I’m really disappointed with this one.”
His frustration reached a (literal) breaking point when he smashed his racquet down three times following the opening point of the third game of the third set, right after losing his serve in the previous game.
It remains to be seen if he’s fit enough for Saturday’s doubles with Nestor, or to play the fifth match on Sunday, if necessary, possibly against Cilic.
The team captains’ musical chairs continued on Saturday when Canada withdrew no. 2 singles player Peter Polansky two hours and 20 minutes before the 2 p.m. start time of his scheduled match against Coric, and replaced him with Pospisil. Referee Norbert Peick said that there’s not a time limitation in Davis Cup regarding when a team can make a medically-based substitution on the Friday. He cited a potential example of a player being sick on the court and said that there has to be a match presented for the public, television etc. at the appointed time. Thus no time restriction for when a new player is inserted as long as a doctor certifies the player’s condition.
“Pete had a little bit of an elbow problem all week and this morning it was pretty sore,” captain Dancevic explained about the change. “I thought it was a better call to save him in case we need him for the weekend. It was my call to pull him out of today’s match and put Vasek in.”
As for Coric, he said about change from Polansky to Pospisil, “it surprised me but it didn’t affect me in any way because it’s a tennis match at the end of the day. I had two and a half hours to prepare for Pospisil and I watched some videos as I always do. It didn’t change a lot.”
The next substitution is expected to come sometime before 1 p.m. Croatian time on Saturday – one hour before the 2 p.m start. And that would be Cilic for Franko Skugor. It is rare that Nestor, and Pospisil are underdogs in Davis Cup doubles but the Croat pair, if indeed it is Dodig and Cilic, will be definite favourites based on previous impressive Davis Cup wins – including over the Bryan brothers and Frenchmen Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.
The major variable now remaining in the best-of-five match tie may well be Cilic’s fitness – is he over the jetlag just four days back from Melbourne where he played the Aussie Open final against Roger Federer, and will the transition from hard courts to clay be as problematic for him as it was for Pospisil?
Croatian captain Zeljiko Kragan told the Croat media that the decision to put in clay has been justified by the result of the Pospisil – Coric match. He suggested that Pospisil would have been a much more dangerous opponent on clay.
Kragan was asked about Shapovalov and how exactly the Croatian team would have a lefthander available to simulate him in practice ahead of Sunday’s scheduled fourth match against Coric.
He responded by saying that Croat legend, the 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, is expected to be at the tennis on Saturday and might be available to warm up Coric before his match against Shapovalov. The 46-year-old Ivanisevic is, of course, a southpaw.
This street musician on the Kupucinska Ulica was playing a string instrument called a tamburica, which is like a mandolin. He was hoping to pick up a few extra kuna (the Croat currency) from the citizens of Osijek.
Feature photo by: Kyle Clapham